I’m not sure exactly when it happened that the British public decided that Bankers were agents of the devil, but it certainly seems to be the case judging by headlines this week. Well, maybe the press is on to something…
And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
Revelations 13: 16-17 (King James Version)
A sad day today: in the case of The Office of Fair Trading versus The Minions of Satan (aka the High Street Banks) a decision was found in favour of the banks, ending several years of legal uncertainty. Well, for now…
Of course I do not literally think the British High Street Banks are the Beast prophesied in the final book of the Bible ; do they look like a lamb while speaking like a dragon? Um, well, now you mention it… That they are anti-christ seems quite clear: I mean usury (the lending of money at interest) is a mortal sin anyway isn’t it? So I like the term “minions of Satan”, and encourage people to treat them just as you would if Old Nick appeared and asked you to sign a paper in exchange for a pile of hot gold – if you must sign, sign in blood. This usually gets you chucked out of the bank before proceedings get nasty. Trust me, I know. :)
Better you get chucked out or an ambulance or the police called than you lose your soul by dealing with the Devil.
What profiteth a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose his own soul?
Luke 9: 23
Yes I’m joking – I’m just mightily sore at this decision, and yet I can’t argue with the legal logic. It was the correct legal decision – but there are wider issues at stake…
The Reverse Robin Hood
So what is the Reverse Robin Hood? Something I found in the Anne Summers Guide to Improbably Acrobatic Acts? Not quite!It’s actually a memorable line from the Supreme Court ruling today
though Mr Sumption QC (for the banks) vigorously disputed Lord Mance’s suggestion that his clients were engaged in a sort of “reverse Robin Hood
The phrase amused me, and lies at the heart of the controversy.
Banks exist to make their shareholders a profit. This is actually the responsibility of any publicly floated company, and therefore one can not blame banks for trying to make profits, no matter how many billion that may be. What is actually at stake here is not if bank fees are appropriate – I think it entirely appropriate I pay for the service provided; the question is how that payment should be taken.
At the moment we have ‘free banking’ in the UK – well 80% of people do. The remaining 20%, the villains, in fact subsidize the free banking by paying these charges, which make up 30% of the revenues gained by the banks from their Current Accounts.
The villains who go overdrawn without proper authorisation pay many times the actual cost incurred to the banks by their indiscretion – and as a result, the 80% of good folks pay nothing. Fair enough?
Except — those 20% are the poorest members of society on the whole. People with enough money to live rarely go in to these unauthorised overdrafts simply for fun. OK a few do, because they have failed to watch their spending, or because a £25 fee is no big deal to them, so they would rather pay it than delay gratification. Unfortunately, for those who are actually in the bread line, an emergency like sickness means one often has to make the decision between going over and paying £25 fee to get the seven pounds fifty for a prescription charge, or not getting the pills. And trust me I know -I have a drawer full of prescriptions I have never collected. A job interview? Same problem. I have lost all my savings I had amassed and bunt through my disposable income and had to borrow heavily just to get to an interview for a position I really wanted – the train fare alone was two weeks income for me. And I did not get the job, again…
Now to be fair, much of this is NOT a problem if you are on the dole, Income Support or similar. I know it’s hard, but I honestly miss the luxury of knowing I would get my bi-weekly giro. And free prescriptions! Unfortunately the only state benefit I receive does not give on exemption from that or Council Tax for example, and a helluva lot of other people are in the same boat. It’s really mainly a problem for the working poor – those who actually do work, but are on low incomes. No amount of financial planning or savings can protect you against some of life’s disasters when you have £17.50 a week after rent & council tax to live off, and these people make up that villainous 20%.
And they pay everyone’s bank costs, covering the 80% who actually are never going to need to worry about having to go suddenly overdrawn. Hence “reverse Robin Hood” – not a sex position, but actually the way UK banking works - “robbing from the poor to pay for the rich” :)
This was NOT the issue at stake in the court case. In fact the Court Ruling goes some way to making clear that in fact the ruling was on the appropriateness of the tool used by the Office of Fair Trading to pursue the demonic horde – er sorry, I mean High Street banks – and that the tool in question, an EU directive, was incorrect. The OFT has gone off to lick it’s wounds, and I expect an announcement shortly – there are still plenty of legal options if they have the will to continue the fight. There is actually a FAR more dangerous legal threat to the banks lurking in the wings, but I shall ignore that for now as it has nothing to do with bank charges.
I have just been hit for £100 by my bank for bank charges – puzzling, given that I have only one direct debit or other agreement, no standing orders, only one payment goes out – my phone bill – which I had funds to cover and have not gone over my agreed overdraft as far as I can see – until the charges came in last month, pushing me over. Now i have been charged for being in debt cos I could not clear the last charge before this month. That charge was equal to 10 days disposable income for me – the new charges represent six weeks disposable income. I am now locked in what will rapidly become a spiral of charges, which will eventually result in my ending up with a huge debt to my bank – all from one £25 charge, the cause of which I am still not aware of.
I have written to my bank, and had some correspondence – and was interested by what was said. I noted that I had signed up for a current account on the understanding that I could not actually go overdrawn, and that my solo card prevented me spending money I did not have. I was informed that in fact I can now go overdrawn, the contracts T&C’s* having been subject to change, and that they as a bank can in fact not stop me doing this, and can not allow me to put some block on my account so I can’t spend what I don’t have. I can NOT have a limit by which I can not go outside my overdraft. I asked why, and my understanding is this “service” is provided by a third party company. I need to look in to this, as it could have quite serious ramifications in terms of the legality of my original contract, subsequent variation,and Data Protection regarding sharing of my personal data with subsidiary or affiliated groups.
The End of Free Banking?
And here is the big bogeyman – the fear that like America, most of Europe, in fact most of the World we might have to pay a small charge for our banking. The righteous 80% are positively frothing when you suggest that actually everyone paying the ACTUAL cost of their banking services would not really be unreasonable, rather than the poorest subsidizing everyone else. The fact such an arrangement would be in agreement with principles of natural justice does not seem to bother them – they are terrified the bank might take their money. Yet to the poorest the current arrangement is crippling, little more than loansharking. Why do I say this?
As you may have gathered I resent paying bank charges beyond my usual debit interest and the odd small fee, like the £9 which I used to be charged when I actually signed up to my contract if I did something dumb. That is today £25. So when I needed money last month (and I have just been scraping around to get change off the floor to buy a loo roll – I get my money on Saturday) I decided that I would be a good responsible citizen, and extend my overdraft by fifty quid. It’s £200. I did not think £250 would break them. I had not been overdrawn beyond my limit in three years. I have no CCJ’s against me, and a small but regular income. So applied online for a one month £50 extension.
And they said it would cost me £25 for arranging the overdraft. Er what? It costs me £25 to go “informally overdrawn” – and £25 if I do it properly too? SO I phoned up, they confirmed the charge, and refused to extend my overdraft anyway. I ended up borrowing off friends, who ar every long suffering but realise my situation. Thanks to everyone who has helped so often!
Now the bank’s defence on their practices is that if you make an arrangement with them you will not incur the charges. I tried to make an arrangement – and the charges were still there? No less – exactly the same fee. So if i actually went overdrawn illegitimately, or legitimately, it would cost sthe same. And what is worse, they refused me anyway. So the bank has clearly decided I’m a bad credit risk – yet when I put my card in to try and get my last fiver out, it asked me if I wanted to pay £25 for the privilege of an “informal overdraft arrangement”.
I declined, and added another prescription to my collection.
So if Free Banking is threatened, I won’t cry too much. I’ll still pay, but you can be certain that te 80% will make sure that they are not ripped off, as they have the voices and power, and I don’t think it will happen anyway. Why? People are getting used to shopping around for the best bank account deals. They are realising that when a bank changes the rates or charges, they can move their money elsewhere. Credit Cards (which I don’t have) taught people the esoteric joys of balance tranfers. We are not like our parents who stayed with the bank down the road for life. Competition would reduce bank charges immediately once they are moved from those who can';t afford them to those who can.
Furthermore, the government is the biggest stake holder in many of the High Street banks now. The bail out, what was it £62 billion or whatever, saved the economy. From my reading Gordon Brown actually did save the world, well at least the global economy while the Americans dillied and dallied. Good on him! I’m no fan of New Labour, but it was a beautiful bit of political intervention. So maybe the political will exists to actually stop this nonsense, and stop the increasing gap between rich and poor in our society?
There is something pathetic about an administration legislating to end Child Poverty, yet not looking at the causes of that poverty, of which ruinous bank charges on the parents of said kids must come high in the causes. The government controls the banks – and can promise free banking on the banks they are major stakeholders in.
And the banks: the banks can stop this now. All they have to do is cap unauthorised spending – stop people taking money they have not got out of the cash machine, and charge what it actually costs to bounce a direct debit or whatever, not some exorbitant fee. Sure people would suffer, as I do, because they can’t lay their hands on cash at the end of the month – but if you put them in a cycle of bank charges like this they will soon have no money by the middle, then the start of the month. So stop selling debt to third party companies banks, and make your limits stick. And get rid of the ludicrous charge on AGREED overdrafts.
Yes, profits might fall a little. Yes shareholders in the banks might get slightly lower dividends. But how many bank shareholders actually have kids in poverty? And aren’t we all shareholders when we pay tax since the bail out? Are we not entitled to join the party?
I fought the Beast – and the Beast won – for now. Yet it will not continue forever…
* and before anyone says – bet you did not read the Terms and Conditions carefully – oh, how wrong you are! I actually read them and understood them fully, and in fact far better in light of the relevant legislation than my bank appears to have. I wonder why they do not hire solicitors to read their own T&C’s, rather than apparently just copy them from each other and earlier agreements? One day very soon this could cost them so much that a lot of banks might go under… I find it incredible that many Banks seem unaware of the statutory requirements of the Consumer Credit Acts…